No unnecessary meetings. Zero office politics. Is this professional-services nirvana? 

We pay you. Therefore we own you. We decide when you must arrive in the office, when you can leave and when you can go on holiday.

For most professionals, when you strip back the PR puff, that’s essentially how it works. Sure, there are a few nods towards flexibility such as the occasional work-from-home day, but essentially your time is – to some extent – managed by others. You are not the boss until you’re the big boss, and even then, you probably have an even bigger boss looking over your shoulder.

Is it an effective, profitable model? Yes, otherwise it would not dominate our working culture. Is it a model that will remain effective in the future? That’s a different question entirely.

The problem is that the model has a contradiction buried deep within. Those in charge of implementing it ask their employees to be entrepreneurial, to take the initiative, to invent, to lead. This motivates. But the very same bosses also closely monitor and manage their staff and so send out the message: “I don’t trust you”. This demotivates.

In the main, this discrepancy does not cause issues. Most employees accept the deal and get on with it. But not all. The most talented will eventually demand greater power and flexibility. As a result, these stars either become bosses and enter into the spirit of it all, enforcing the same rules themselves. Or they become disillusioned by the lack of freedom and the negativity of office politics, so leave to become their own bosses somewhere they can make the rules.

Does it have to be this way? Imagine a company made up of accomplished people who’ve all left corporates to become masters of their own destiny. Wouldn’t that be the best of all worlds? The company would have the muscle and support structures of a large organisation, plus the brains, drive and creativity of genuine entrepreneurs – people who’ve outgrown their corporate cabins to become captains of their own ships. It would be a happier place, too. People could work as they see fit – wherever, whenever. Goodbye, unnecessary meetings! Cheerio, negative intra-office relationships. Farewell micro-management!

Keystone Law is, according to its founder and CEO James Knight, that very company.  Comprising 300 self-employed lawyers supported by a central office of 50 staff, it’s a firm that diverts from the “we pay you, so we own you” model. Instead, individual lawyers work for themselves. For any work they do for their own clients, they get 75% of the fees, with 25% going to Keystone’s central office. Anyone who hands business to a Keystone colleague receives 15% of the fee (brilliant for encouraging cross-referrals), with the recipient of the new work taking 60%. Again, central office collects 25%.

“Keystone Law is the happiest law firm in the world,” says James, a lawyer who’s always had an entrepreneurial streak. “This is happiness by design. It’s a complete restructure of the traditional professional services firm. Everyone has the same job title. Everyone is on the same deal. There are no office politics. The best lawyer in the world could join us and ask for a different deal. We’d say no. Fairness, transparency and administrative ease – those are key.”

So how exactly does this structure lead to greater happiness? “It’s about doing great work and enjoying life,” says James. “Our lawyers work for themselves. That’s real life. It goes to the core of how humans naturally want to work – doing something and being rewarded instantly. We pay our lawyers immediately, as soon as the client settles, not at the end of the month or week. It’s all carrot with no stick. The more you do, the more you earn. We don’t require anyone to do anything apart from a good job. There are no limits and no targets. The relationship between lawyers and Keystone Law is one of joint venture.”

From a client perspective, it’s working well. Keystone Law was recently listed in Legal Week as one of the top 20 law firms in the UK based on client feedback, and it was the only law firm listed in the top five in each category. “That’s down to the motivation, passion and quality of our lawyers,” says James. “They are self-employed, so they are motivated in the best possible way.”

But why bother becoming a Keystone lawyer at all when you could just work for yourself and take 100%? There are three big reasons: first, support from central office and use of the firm’s own technology platform, called Keyed-In; second, camaraderie and networking opportunities provided by colleagues; third, extra marketing clout supplied by the Keystone name. For self-employed lawyers used to working alone, the central office is a dream. It consists of a finance team, a marketing team, IT, recruitment, business development and compliance and junior lawyers to help out. “Our lawyers use central office and Keyed-In to work wherever they want, whenever they want, and they can call on a whole network of colleagues, too,” says James. “That frees up extra time to spend on holiday, with family, playing sport – whatever they want. It’s about freedom, flexibility and autonomy combined with support, infrastructure and technology.”

Keystone Law listed on the London Stock Exchange in 2017 and is growing fast, currently recruiting 60 new lawyers each year. “The market we operate in is worth about £9bn a year globally and our turnover is currently £40m,” says James. “We haven’t even scratched the surface yet.”

And now, with thousands of self-motivated millennials pouring into the workplace for the first time each year, James’ firm finds itself in a strong position. Expectations of work have changed, particularly among this group. The trend in general – and amongst millennials in particular – is to prioritise work-life balance, rejecting the salaried ‘we pay you, so we own you’ model in favour of something so much fairer and more progressive.

“This is a firm for millennials. It’s ahead of its time and we’re surfing the crest of a wave,” says James. “Technology is constantly improving. And the desire for self-employment, entrepreneurialism and a happier, more balanced life is growing. Traditionally, law firms haven’t taken the importance of emotional wellbeing into account. People’s feelings are low priority. They pay you a salary and therefore they feel like they can dictate to you. But we don’t pay salaries, so salaries are not the glue that holds this firm together. What does hold us together is a shared philosophy of working for yourself exactly as you want to. We don’t own our people. Everyone could leave tomorrow if they wanted to. But they don’t. In fact, our lawyer turnover is negligible and we’re growing faster now than ever before after 17 years.”

By stripping out salaries and replacing them with freedom and intrinsic motivation, James Knight might just have found the perfect model for the millennial generation. And what’s more, it’s hugely scalable, so watch this space…